Inside the NIH’s $200m study that will produce the definitive diet for health: Hundreds of Americans will live in labs for weeks, eating precise diets and undergoing hundreds of medical tests

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Study will involve 10,000 participants to provide more personalized diet advice
  • The NIH researchers are studying how different people respond to various diets 
  • READ MORE:  World’s best weight loss diet revealed

Imagine getting paid by the government to take six weeks off work and eat junk food.

That’s the reality for some of the Americans taking part in one of the most comprehensive nutrition studies ever conducted. 

The near-$200million project – run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – involves 500 participants who are living in government laboratories around the country and being fed precisely curated diets while undergoing hundreds of medical tests.

The aim is to identify how different people respond to a variety of diets, hopefully providing more personalized nutritional guidance and establish clearer recommendations for the US public amid a spiraling obesity epidemic that now means nearly half of Americans are too fat.

The NIH research, entitled Nutrition for Precision Health study, will involve 10,000 participants in total and is hoping to provide individualized diet advice based on people’s lifestyles, genes, environment, gut microbiome and culture – and to study how those factors influence a person’s response to diet. 

Study participants will spend two weeks each on three different diets: one high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugar; one high in sugars and meats and low in fruits and fish; and one high in veggies and meats and low in dairy and fruits

The NPH study is utilizing 14 sites in Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina to conduct research

The NPH study is utilizing 14 sites in Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina to conduct research

Enrollment for the study opened in April 2023 and will continue with follow ups for four years.

Of the hundreds of people housed in a scientific facility is 29-year-old tech worker Kevin Elizabeth, who, during one study session was observed eating sugary cereal while hooked up to an IV. 

As part of the research, Mr Elizabeth wore a heart rate monitor and a glucose monitor to take measurements while he ate his breakfast. He also had blood drawn nine times over four hours to measure how his body responded to the meal, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Throughout his stay, the participant will be fed three different diets and undergo full body scans to measure fat and muscle and give urine and blood samples. 

The Louisiana resident was nearing the end of following the study’s processed-foods diet and said he felt more tired than usual 

While on this diet, he said he was ‘just not feeling great’ and said he had better energy during the two weeks he followed the study’s veggie-heavy eating plan. 

Mr Elizabeth, who works from home and can continue his job remotely while in the study, told the publication: ‘I thought it would be nice if I could do something meaningful for, like, science and, personally, just to learn more about diet and how it affects me personally.’

The NIH said: ‘The goal of precision nutrition is to move from a “one-size-fits-most” approach to more specific recommendations that are based on each individual’s unique characteristics and environments.’

Eventually, the NIH is hoping to build a nutritional database of 1million people to reflect the diversity of the US population, spur more medical research and provide people with individualized health prevention strategies, treatment and care options. 

Along with the 500 people living in scientific facilities, some will undergo more intense studying, including having people follow them to ensure they follow the diet and don’t eat unauthorized food. 

Others will wear special glasses to record what they eat, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

It is well documented that a poor diet can lead to a number of health issues and chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

A September 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rates of obesity across the US are on the rise – with states having 25 to 40 percent of its residents classified as obese.

Overall, 42 percent of people 20 years and older are obese in the US.  

The numbers prompted CDC experts to declare that tackling the obesity epidemic in the country is an ‘urgent priority.’ 

Contributing to the problem is conflicting and unclear dietary guidelines, as well as diet culture and ever-emerging diet advice. 

The website for the study states: ‘Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. Nutrition, or the foods we eat, can help prevent and fight conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

‘But we all live in different environments and come from different cultures. Each of us is starting from a different place with our health. And everyone breaks down food differently.

‘The Nutrition for Precision Health study is researching how nutrition can be tailored to each person’s genes, culture and environment to improve health.’ 

The hope of the study, Holly Nicastro, coordinator for the study, told WSJ, is that in several years, people will be able to undergo a few simple medical tests in their doctor’s office, answer a survey about health and lifestyle and then receive personalized diet advice. 

The NPH study is utilizing 14 sites in Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina to conduct research. It will use artificial intelligence-based approaches to analyze information provided by subjects to develop algorithms that will predict responses to certain diet patterns. 

Nicastro said in a previous press release: ‘Poor diet is one of the leading causes of preventable disease and death around the world. If everyone followed the healthy eating guidelines that we have available now, we still may not achieve optimal health because our bodies respond differently to food.

‘Through this study, we are looking to better understand differences in individual responses and pave the way for more tailored guidelines in the future.’

There are three parts of the NIH study. In the first, all study participants are asked to complete surveys, report their daily diets and provide urine, blood and stool samples. 

In the second, a subset of people will be given curated diets and the third component sees participants live in the research facilities to be more closely studied. 

According to the study’s clinical trial description, participants will spend two weeks each on three different diets: one high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low sugar and moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, meats and fish.

Caloric intake ranges from 1,600 to 3,200.

The second diet will consist of high amounts of refined grains, meats, sugars, snacks, desserts and processed foods. It is low in fruits and veggies, as well as whole grains and fish. 

Calories will range from 1,600 to 3,200.

The third diet will have moderate to high consumption levels of vegetables, meats, fats and oils and low amounts of dairy and fruits, as well as very low amounts of grains and sugars. 

Calories will also range from 1,600 to 3,200.  

NPH participants are chosen from the NIH’s larger research project All of Us, which is hoping to build the million-person nutritional database.  

So far, the agency says that project has 535,000 biological samples from 515,000 fully enrolled participants, with an additional 240,000 potential enrollees being evaluated for admittance to the study. 

Throughout the study process, participants will receive $25 for completing short surveys and up to $300 depending how far along in the process they continue. 

Those undergoing more intense research will receive additional compensation, the NIH said.  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

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